'Abou Leila': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Kanami/Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
An intriguing debut for art house aficionados.

The first feature from Algerian director Amin Sidi-Boumediene premiered in the Critics' Week progam in Cannes.

Two men drive into the Sahara, which becomes a surreal landscape in more ways than one in Abou Leila, from debuting filmmaker Amin Sidi-Boumediene. Set during the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s, like Mounia Meddour’s Papicha, the other Algerian debut premiering in Cannes this year, this intentionally disorienting work runs over two hours and is literally and figuratively a trip that isn’t only captivating but tries to take its viewers captive. Not interested in naturalistic conventions or historical recreations, Sidi-Boumediene instead uses the world of dreams and the tools of cinema to try and approximate the complex headspace of those finding themselves stuck in a bloody and entirely absurd conflict, seemingly without a way out. 

At the decidedly experimental end of the art house spectrum, this is the kind of feature that will be embraced at cinephile festivals — like Cannes, where it bowed in the Critics’ Week — and in more specialized contexts. It should also help Sidi-Boumediene get noticed internationally as a fascinating new voice from the Maghreb. His De Palma-esque opening sequence, in which two armed men corner a shady figure outside his house, alone is proof of an impressive mastery of cinematic language and will have film fans make a mental note of his name for future reference. 

Since Abou Leila isn’t a narrative-driven feature — or, rather, narrative isn’t the most important element — a long synopsis would turn into a list of descriptions of different scenes that don’t all directly relate to one another except on a more abstract level. A very basic plot outline: In 1994 Algeria, Lotfi (Lyes Salem) and someone only known as S (Slimane Benouari) are escaping from the capital in a car, driving further and further into the Sahara. The feverish S, who suffers from bad dreams and visions, is barely keeping it together, and Lotfi tries to make an effort to not compromise their ambiguous mission, which involves finding the title character. But it is not quite clear who Abou Leila exactly is and why they need to find him, so what starts as a journey on the road increasingly becomes an expedition into the characters’ fractured psyches.

The uncertainty of the protagonists and their precise destination or goals find a parallel in the lives of regular Algerians during the 1990s. During the so-called Black Decade, events took a violent turn after the corrupt government cancelled first-round election results when it looked like a party that wanted to turn Algeria into an Islamic republic could win the next elections. The Islamists then turned to terrorism and attacked the locals to try and demoralize the population and undermine support for their government so they could finally install their supposedly righteous religious state. 

Using extreme violence and murder to force people to accept a supposedly moral high ground — as similar fundamentalist groups still do today in many countries, one of the reasons this film feels at once historical and completely contemporary — is a paradox so immense and nonsensical that it is nearly impossible for any straight-thinking person to even attempt to comprehend it. It is this sense of disorientation, disbelief and anger that doesn’t have a clear outlet, caused by all that senseless brutality and bloodshed that in turn fuel even more incomprehension and anger, that Sidi-Boumediene explores here in often stark and arresting images and sounds. 

The scenes outside of Algiers, in sleepy desert towns and seedy motels or open spaces with rocks and sand as far as the eye can see, feel like disconnected nightmarish episodes, with the only constant linking them all together the constant menace of violence (if it isn’t already onscreen yet). Japanese cinematographer Kaname Onoyama's sinuous camerawork always feels like a simple pan left or right away from uncovering a new threat that might be closing in. Quite logically, there is a degree of irrationality to much of the dream-like material but Sidi-Boumediene also manages to infuse this in the scenes that are supposedly real, like an astonishingly shot sequence around a car wreck in the desert that feels not only true but also absurd and alarming. The effect, of course, is to suggest that life itself has become an absurd nightmare and that, in the 1990s, it became increasingly hard to tell whether real life fueled the nightmares or vice versa.  

Some Western critics will likely slap a cinephile adjective or two — Lynchian and Antonioni-esque will probably crop up the most, even though they might at first sight seem mutually exclusive — on Abou Leila and call it a day. But while the impeccably mounted feature is certainly a treasure trove of possible influences, a game of guess-the-ancestors — and, by extension, a game of how-original-is-this-really? — might risk ignoring exactly what makes this particular film stand out. And that is that it worms its way into the minds of the characters and talks about how the irrationality of their daily reality made them feel in the Algerian context. But even those unfamiliar with the specifics could be fascinated by the larger questions being asked, such as whether it is possible at all to think and behave logically if the entire framework of your reality is based on an unsolvable paradox.

Since there is no completely logical narrative throughline to follow and the film is more interested in moods and evocations of emotions, it is, of course, debatable whether the movie needs to be well over two hours long. But the drawn-out length, in a sense, reinforces the sense of dislocation and being trapped in a nightmare without end, all feelings no doubt familiar to those who lived through the Black Decade. 

Sidi-Boumediene, who acted as his own editor, even attempts something of a Mobius strip in his editing patterns, as a story strand seems to loop back onto itself with a crazy twist. Abou Leila, is, in the end, a daring work about the mental Mobius strip caused by fundamentalism, which dictates that only the most extreme violence can lead to purity, which is the opposite of violence. It’s a position that is, of course, impossible to wrap your head around, though newcomer Sidi-Boumediene demonstrates that it is possible to explore this paradox using the magic of the movies.  

Production companies: Thala Films, In Vivo Films
Cast: Slimane Benouari, Lyes Salem, Azouz Abdelkader, Fouad Megiraga, Meryem Medjkane, Hocine Mokhtar, Samir El Hakim 
Writer-director: Amin Sidi-Boumediene 
Producers: Faycal Hammoum, Yacine Bouaziz, Louise Bellicaud, Claire Charles-Gervas
Director of photography: Kaname Onoyama
Production designer: Hamid Boughrara, Laurent Le Corre 
Editor: Amin Sidi-Boumediene
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Sales: Films Boutique

In Darija, Tamasheq
139 minutes